Archives For NBA Playoffs

While it can be informative to look at the regular season series between the Lakers and the Spurs, the fact is that both teams are different than the versions that played in those games. Injuries and other personnel decisions have affected roster composition. Further, the playoffs typically offer tweaks to offensive and defensive sets in an attempt to account for strengths and weaknesses of a specific opponent who won’t be changed until they’re dispatched (or hailed as victors).

Said another way, what we saw in the regular season matters but we should also expect some changes based of who’s available to play and what those players can and can’t do well on the floor. With that in mind, let’s look at this series on both sides of the ball to try and sort out what the Lakers need to do to remain competitive…

When the Lakers have the ball

First and foremost, wether or not Steve Nash plays in this series is a very important variable in how successful the Lakers’ offense can be. With Nash in the fold — assuming his healthy enough to replicate how he played for most of this regular season — the Lakers are much more dangerous on that side of the ball. Nash not only offers expert level shooting, floor generalship, and an on ball creator in the P&R and isolation who can create good shots, but they also lose an off ball threat who’s work as a screener is integral to the team’s success in HORNS sets and also a player who affects spacing simply by being on the floor. There’s a ton of tangible and intangible value with Nash in the mix and that’s magnified even further with Kobe injured.

All that said, whether Nash plays or not the Lakers will need to be a post dominant team offensively. The ball must be worked inside on a majority of their possessions, if only to affect the Spurs’ help defense by forcing them to collapse inside. If there’s one thing we know it’s that Dwight Howard’s combination of quickness, strength, and athleticism can give Tim Duncan problems. In the game from this past Sunday, Howard regularly used his first step to get an advantage on Duncan and then used his strength to get better position so he could finish inside. The Lakers will need to work the ball into Howard in a similar way this series, not just through standard post ups, but by moving him from block to block with screens and on dives to the post out of the P&R to enable him to earn his position. If Dwight can get deep post touches he’ll score on the majority of those possessions and that will influence the Spurs to begin double teaming  and fouling him to try and get the ball out of his hands or make him less affective.

Gasol too must be a featured weapon, working against Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, and Matt Bonner. Pau can offer more versatility than Dwight in that he’ll be stationed all over the floor to try and maximize everything he can bring offensively. When the Lakers go to their HORNS sets, Pau will often be the trigger man up high while the wings set and come off screens. Pau will need to be at the top of his game as a distributor, reading the action in front of him and making the right pass/shot decisions to keep the flow of the offense going. A major key, of course, is his high-low work with Dwight and if the Lakers are to maximize their attack they will need to find a way to keep that action fresh and effective.

That said, just because Pau starts a lot of possessions at the elbow doesn’t mean he has to stay there. In fact, the Lakers offense will be better off if he finds ways to work his way down to the block after starting a set up high. There are plenty of ways to accomplish this, but first is to simply turn down the jumper in order to take a hard dribble towards the rim to create a post up chance. The defense is likely to sag off Pau and rather than using that space as a buffer for his shot, he can close it down by attacking and trying to a spot inside of 10 feet. Second, Pau can turn a quick pass or hand-off from the elbow into a P&R opportunity for him to either pop for a jumper or (preferably) dive to the box to get a post touch. The Lakers don’t have a lot of perimeter threats to occupy wing defenders so they’ll need to get creative with secondary P&R actions like this in order to get their big men the ball in positions where they can do damage. Pau’s decision making after starting a possession as a facilitator will be key to make this happen.

Where the Lakers will need to show the most creativity (and get contributions above what was provided during the regular season) is from their crop of perimeter players. Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison, Earl Clark and Ron will all need to hit the jumpers afforded to them when the defense collapses on Dwight and Pau. Further, they’ll need to also show some offensive variety in how they attack the defense and not solely rely on hitting outside shots. Jamison and Clark will need to be active cutters, working the creases of the defense when their defenders turn their heads. Ron will need find post up opportunities on weak side duck-ins, especially when one of Pau or Dwight are on the bench. Blake will need to mix in some drives to the rim where even if he misses the shot he’s drawing defenders and enabling offensive rebounding chances. Even Meeks can work as a cutter off the weak side to get shots in the paint and/or attack closeouts with a couple of dribbles and either try to hit a shot in close or kick the ball out to another teammate if the defense slides over to help.

Maintaining spacing and effectively moving the ball against such a disciplined defense will be difficult. Especially since the Spurs will try to take away the ball reversal that can so often lead to the quick post ups the Lakers want to feature as a staple of this Kobe-less offense. However, if the team is assertive with their movement of bodies and aggressive when attacking with the ball, they can, hopefully, create makable shots via the template they used last week.

When the Spurs have the ball

There’s an old saying about slowing a great team that involves “cutting off the head of the snake”. To beat the Spurs, this phrase applies in relation to Tony Parker. The Lakers’ primary goal is to limit his effectiveness. To do so, however, is difficult and requires a team effort. Primary defenders must funnel him away from the middle of the floor and into space where help is readily available. The help must step up early and maintain discipline in order to not give up an angle that allows him to slip by to the rim. When shots go up, they should be challenged without fouling. This needs to happen on every possession of every game.

Understand that even if this takes place, he’s still going to make shots. Parker has a wonderful mid-range jumper that he can make from either side of the floor. He also has a great floater that he’ll use when coming off the P&R or when attacking in transition. But if the help is there consistently and the primary defender is doing his job, he can be slowed. (As an aside, expect to see Darius Morris used as a primary defender on Parker over the course of this series. Morris offers good size and lateral quickness and has had some success on Parker this season.)

Of course, Parker is only one piece of the puzzle. The Spurs’ offense is so great because they not only have great players, but because they run a disciplined system that incorporates magnificent ball movement that picks out the open man more often than not. That begins with Parker, but funnels through every player on the floor at one point or another. Key to this is Tim Duncan’s versatility as both a high and low post presence. One of the Spurs’ pet plays is a high P&R with Duncan setting the screen where he pops to the top of the key area. At that point Duncan can either shoot his jumper, attack off the dribble, or start a dribble hand-off sequence with the wing on the opposite side. When running that secondary hand-off option, the Spurs create another P&R where Duncan rolls to down the lane line and that sets up an open shot for him or a skip pass when the defense collapses. That pass often catches defenses in mid-rotation and sets up open jumpers for players like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard that they knock down with stunning consistency.

For the Lakers to slow this, then, they need to be sharper than ever on their rotations to Duncan at the top of the key and then on the back side after that secondary P&R occurs. The weak side guard (in many cases this will be Meeks) will need to hedge towards Duncan to make him pause on his jumper attempt (enabling his man to recover) and the scurry back to the wing where his man is spotting up ready to either shoot a shot or cut hard to the ball to receive the hand-off. If the Lakers can slow this sequence, they’ll force a reset of the Spurs’ offense and they can run the same action all over again.

Understand, this is what the Spurs do. They consistently test the patience of the defense and look for that key moment when a slight breakdown occurs so they can pounce. Whether that’s from Parker (or Ginobili) creating off the dribble, a quick pass to a shooter (Green, Neal, Leonard, Bonner), or a quick hitting action to Duncan where he can take advantage via post up or on a dive to the rim when the defense is overcompensating, it’s all the same to the Spurs. They want to consistently create a series of hard choices for the defense and then make the right read. All the Lakers can try to do is remain as focused on making the correct choice as often as they can and, in some cases, simply hope the Spurs make a mistake or miss an open shot.

Beyond the system, Parker, and Duncan, the Spurs also have several key role players who will need to be slowed. I’ve already mentioned Leonard, Neal, Green and Bonner as shooters. They must all be marked around the arc and all offer a different dynamic based off who will defend them (especially Bonner who is a classic stretch four and will either be drawing Pau away from the paint or require a smaller player guard him). Another key player who can really hurt the Lakers, however, is Tiago Splitter. In the game last Sunday he broke free for several shots inside the paint that he just happened to miss. He’s crafty in getting into open spaces and has good enough hands to make the difficult catch and still finish inside. He’s developed a nice chemistry with Duncan and can play high-low or block to block with him quite nicely. I don’t expect Splitter to suddenly morph into a 20 point a night scorer, but he can certainly score enough points to shift a game or two in the Spurs way and that’s all it takes to seize control of the series.

It’s safe to say the Lakers will be heavy underdogs in this series, which is a totally reasonable position to take. With Kobe out and with Nash’s availability uncertain, the Spurs are clearly the better and deeper team. That said, the rules of the game don’t change and there are models the Lakers can use to stay competitive in  this series. It will take massive efforts from Dwight and Pau on both sides of the ball, perimeter players to hit shots, and for the defense to show more discipline than they have all season. Having all those things go the Lakers’ way certainly isn’t impossible, but it’s not probable either.

That said, this is what the Lakers fought so hard for. For this chance. We’ll see how much they have in them starting on Sunday.

After The Gold Rush

Dave Murphy —  April 18, 2013

There’s an oft-used saying, ‘it’s a tough act to follow.’ You don’t want to be the band that takes the stage after the last band just totally shredded. Or the comedian that follows the guy who had them rolling in the aisles. Phil Jackson was a tough act to follow. Just ask Rudy T, ask Tim Floyd, ask Mike Brown.

Mike D’Antoni could have been the guy that simply followed Brown, they might have given him the keys to the city. But Jackson was back in the picture and for the most obvious of reasons – he was probably the best man for the job, having delivered great riches in the past. D’Antoni’s preferred system of basketball wasn’t suited for for the All-Star roster he inherited and it certainly wasn’t suited for a revolving door of injuries. A pretty rough season followed.

The Lakers lost another giant recently, someone whose greatness defined the team’s identity and direction. Kobe Bryant rounded the corner on Harrison Barnes and headed for Achilles surgery and a new found hobby of tweeting. Who knew?

Things can turn on a trifle as someone used to say. The loss of Bryant was both stunning and surreal and a couple hundred epic articles dropped over the next 24 hours and observers burped and patted each others backs and headed to the sink with the dishes, ready to rinse and wash and move on to the playoffs. In this particular narrative, non-Laker fans could afford to be magnanimous with their sympathy – you guys always have next year. Or not.

A funny thing happened at the tail end of the regular season. In the absence of certain giants and expectations, a team began to form their own ad hoc destiny. You can’t really label them bad news bears, not when fronted by Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. You also can’t pin the month of April on the loss of Kobe and some new found freedom. The Lakers went seven and one and five of those games saw Kobe playing insane minutes and carrying much of the load.

Sometimes, you just have to watch. One of Mike D’Antoni’s pet phrases is ‘letting the ball find the open man’. He has no ownership of the concept, it’s as old as the game itself, a guiding principal in the sport, sometimes honored and often ignored. Over the last two games, the ball has found new movement out of necessity. Guys are getting touches they didn’t get before. And who would have guessed that Andrew Goudelock would get a call-up and join Darius Morris on the floor during pivotal minutes in a seed-defining win?

It’s not simply the loss of Kobe that has caused a change in the team’s philosophy. Steve Nash has been out of action and may suit up on Sunday against the Spurs, depending on the results from two recent epidurals. Will his return put a damper on Steve Blake’s resurgent play? There are no simple answers.

To say it has been a season of adjustment is saying just a little. There have been recent moments that show an interesting unity however. A time out and coaches interact with their players. Dwight’s chatting with Bernie Bickerstaff, Chuck Person makes a point with Metta World Peace. D’Antoni calls the guys to gather and they’re paying attention. A group that has seen little time together on the floor goes back out there and gets some stops. Games are won ugly but they’re won. And the Lakers are in the playoffs with the seventh seed and if nothing else they’ve earned the right to keep playing.

Spring is regarded as a time of renewal and hope. It’s not always pretty, it follows in the barren footsteps of winter after all. The NBA season is too long for the health of its players. It affects all teams and the San Antonio Spurs will be heading into the first round with issues of their own. For the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s a transitional era in ways that are sometimes willfully ignored. Their earth has been mined and harvested, it is in need of replenishment and the new CBA has thrown a few obstacles into the mix. It’s not to say you can’t use your remaining assets though or that you can’t use them well.

The past, present and future of the Lakers has coalesced for the moment – it may not be the most stable of circumstances but there is at least some acceptance – from a head coach willing to let his team play to its strengths to a team willing to share, no longer bound to a singular voice. The expectations game will be back in the summer, one way or another. For at least this moment however, it’s simply the game of basketball.

The Lakers will face the Spurs in the 1st round of the playoffs and, for all intents and purposes, this is the best match up the Lakers could have hoped for. Not because the Spurs are a bad team — they finished 2nd in the West for a reason — or because there’s some underlying flaw with them that makes them beatable in a series. No, the Spurs represent the best match up for the Lakers simply because they’re not the Thunder, Nuggets, or Clippers. You see, those other teams are all young and athletic with a proven ability to outpace this Lakers’ team. There’s a frenetic aspect to playing those teams that the Lakers simply struggle with.

That’s not the case with the Spurs. They’re calculated and disciplined. They have wildcard players who can change the dynamic of any game (Ginobili and Parker, specifically), but they’re a system team that simply grinds team down with execution. That alone should give the Lakers pause and should be considered dangerous, but the fact is the Lakers are best when playing a slower game and putting a greater emphasis on each possession. And while it took some time (and some injuries) for the Lakers to become that type of team, that’s now who they are. Whether or not that will mean much when this series starts on Sunday remains to be seen. But, it certainly mattered when the teams matched up in the regular season.

So, in our initial examination of this match up, let’s take a look at the season series that was with some key numbers included.

*The Spurs won the season series 2-1, claiming wins in November and January, with the Lakers winning their most recent match up just a few days ago.

*The first game was a nail biter that came down to the final defensive possession. With the Spurs trailing in the closing seconds, the Spurs ran a nice set play to free up Danny Green and he buried a three pointer that ended up being the difference. As an aside, neither Steve Nash or Steve Blake played in  this game for the Lakers. The Spurs had their full roster available.

*The second game was another close contest with the Spurs claiming a three point win by outpacing the Lakers on offense. You may remember this game as the one in which Earl Clark began to show he could be a regular rotation player. Clark was excellent in this game, doing a little bit of everything — from making jumpers to diving on the weak side for finishes at the rim, to creating off the dribble. The Spurs, however, rode Tony Parker (who was excellent after having a subpar game in the first match up) and got the win. As an aside, Pau, Dwight, and Jordan Hill all missed this game with injury (hence Clark getting major run) for the Lakers. The Spurs had every player of consequence available.

*The third game was just the other day so we don’t need to go too much into it. It was the Lakers first game after Kobe tore his achilles and the team needed a win badly to keep in front of the Jazz. The Lakers played with passion on both ends, with multiple players stepping up and got the win. On the injury front, the Lakers were missing Kobe, Nash, and Hill. The Spurs were missing Ginobili and Diaw (as well as a waived Stephen Jackson). Tony Parker was playing in only his second game back after a badly sprained ankle.

*If you’re doing the math at home, the point differential in those games was zero. The Spurs won their games by two and three points, the Lakers won theirs by five.

*Not to rub salt in the wound, but the Lakers are going to miss Kobe’s production in this series. In the two games he played against them he averaged 27.5 points, 6.5 assists (to only 1.5 turnovers), and 4 rebounds all while shooting 51.2%.

*Without Kobe, the star for the Lakers will need to be Dwight Howard who did well against the Spurs in the two games he suited up in. Dwight averaged 19.5 points on 58.3% shooting, 16 rebounds (4 offensive), and 3 blocks. He also drew an average of 8 fouls a game, an important stat considering the Spurs don’t have a lot of big man depth.

*Pau Gasol was poor on offense, but good on defense and the glass. Tim Duncan gives everyone problems (including Pau), but the Spaniard did a good job of contesting his shots and hitting the glass. Pau’s 26 total rebounds (7 offensive) in the two games he played were not quite at Dwight’s level, but very big nonetheless.

*On the Spurs’ end, no single player was incredibly impressive over the entirety of the season series. Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili all shot under 45% over the games they played. Kawhi Leonard played okay, but not great. The only Spur who performed up to his season averages was Tiago Splitter who averaged a double-double on 50% shooting. Keep in mind that these numbers (the good and the bad) come in a very small sample.

*One of the key factors to the series will be pace. In the game the Lakers won, they played at a pace factor of 93. In the game they lost on Green’s jumper, the pace was 89. In the game the Spurs pretty much controlled (but was still close), the pace factor was 103. The Spurs can play at a faster tempo and be effective, but slowing the game down is the only way for the Lakers be consistently competitive.

*The Lakers generally controlled the glass, out rebounding the Spurs by an average of 4 per game over the series. The Lakers grabbed a hair over 11 offensive rebounds a game, but surrendered nearly 10 a game to the Spurs on the other end.

*A key to the Spurs’ success was hitting from behind the arc. They made nearly 40% of their three pointers on 21 attempts a game. From the Lakers end, the good news is that only 16 of those 63 attempts came from the corners. The bad news is that they hit 8 of those 16.

*The Lakers were able to play relatively clean basketball, averaging 13.7 turnovers a game (about a full turnover less than their season average). The Spurs, meanwhile, averaged 12 turnovers a game.

There are several other key stats, but we’ll get to those in the rest of the previews we have planned over the next couple of days. The numbers suggest the Lakers have a puncher’s chance in this series, but of course those are all skewed by injuries (both recent and ones at the time of those games). Not to mention the games won’t be played on these past templates, but on new ones crafted by the head coaches where every match up will be magnified and adjustments will matter a great deal. That said, it’s easy to see why the Spurs are the Lakers’ “best” match up in these playoffs. They’ve played them close three times (winning once) under a variety of different circumstances and groups of players available. If nothing else, that should provide some hope.

Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  June 13, 2012

As Darius wrote yesterday, the Heat and the Thunder have been on a collision course all season. Game one was terrific last night. One of the things that I enjoyed most was watching Fish play – 25 minutes, 3 of 5 shooting, and all the little five-rings things. If he gets number six, I’ll be very happy. Without further ado, some links:

Andrew Kamenetzky from the Land O’Lakers, offers a forum with Dave McMenamin and Kevin Arnovitz, about Ramon Sessions.

Marc J. Spears at Yahoo Sports has a wrap-up for the OKC loss with a great Russell Westbrook quote about Shane Battier, “He was trying to punk me.” And then there’s the post game video, Russ in his red glassless frames and Prada shirt with cars and dancing people. Pure gold.

Kelly Dwyer at Ball Don’ Lie considers the decision making process that Derek Fisher went through after buying out his contract from Houston.

Also at BDL, Dan Devine writes about charitable causes, Kobe Bryant, and H-O-R-S-E.

Ken Berger at CBS Sports has a David Stern interview thing.

Alex Dewey at Gothic Ginobili, on LeBron’s long and unfathomable journey, with a Chekhov framework.

Tom Sorensen at the Charlotte Observer, feels that Brian Shaw is the best candidate for the Hornet’s coaching vacancy. The other members of the final three are Jerry Sloan… and Quin Snyder.

Ramneet Singh at Lakers Nation reports on Lakers assistant Ettore Messina returning to Europe, where he’ll be the head coach for CSKA Russia. It was great having him here, but you knew it wouldn’t last – the man is a bonafide legend in the Euroleague.

Beckley Mason at True Hoops has the flops of the night – Chalmers vs. Fisher.

***

Other than Messina leaving and Snyder being on MJ’s short list, there really isn’t much in the way of Lakers news to write about. Or if there is, it hasn’t filtered down to the world according to Dave. If anybody hears anything really choice, post it here. I’ll be sure to snake it and call it my own.

– Dave Murphy

It’s always a bitter feeling when the Finals roll around and the Lakers aren’t participating – especially when they’re one of the handful of teams with legitimate title aspirations. But, for the second season in a row, this is where we sit. However, as a basketball fan, this Finals match up is one that intrigues me to no end. Both teams offer elite star players in their primes, are well coached, and the results will impact the league for years to come. If the Heat win, they’ll have achieved what they were formed to do and can (potentially) build on this success for future seasons. If the Thunder win, they’ll be so young that it could easily tip the balance of power in their direction for the next several years (especially if their ownership is willing to go deep into the tax to keep the team together).

From the beginning of the season this is the match up many predicted and now we have it. As a Laker fan this may upset me but as someone that loves the game I can’t help but be excited. Here are a few of my thoughts heading into the highly anticipated first game…

  • The LeBron vs. Durant match up will be the headline grabber but I think one of the most important tactical match ups will be Bosh vs. Ibaka. Bosh’s ability to spread the floor and play in space will challenge Ibaka’s desire to guard the rim and play close to the paint. If Serge can’t guard the rim effectively, LeBron and Wade will have a much easier time finishing off drives.  And if Serge decides to leave Bosh to still help at the basket he’ll be put in the difficult position of having to challenge without fouling while also leaving one of the premier jump shooting big men alone. If Bosh is able to hit his jumper like he did in game 7 vs. the Celtics, it will be interesting to see how the Thunder counter that match up over the course of the series.
  • The other match up that interests me is Wade vs. Harden. Wade hasn’t looked himself these playoffs and with reports about him getting his knee drained against the Pacers, it would not surprise me if he’s banged up. But he’ll need to be at, or close to, his best this series if the Heat are to win, especially when matched up with Harden. Wade will need to make Harden work hard on both sides of the floor and wear him down by running him off picks and attacking him in isolation from both the wing and the post. When the Thunder played the Lakers (and early in the Spurs series) Harden seemed to tire on offense when he had to guard Kobe on the other end (and Ginobili when he was coming off the bench). If Harden struggles, the Thunder become more beatable as he’s the bridge between Westbrook’s all out attack game and Durant’s more patient approach. Harden will need to perform well on both ends but that’s a tall task if it’s Wade he must go at consistently.
  • It will be interesting to see how much Perkins and Joel Anthony play in this series. My hunch is that they’ll be matched up a lot with each other but when Perkins sits, Anthony won’t play at all. I don’t think the Heat can afford to play him on a jump shooting big like Ibaka or Collison. Perkins, on the other hand, will likely play more than he should – especially when the Heat go small. I think his foot speed issues will be exploited when James plays PF and Bosh plays C. Whether he can make up for that on the glass and in the halfcourt by getting his teammates open in OKC’s screen game remains to be seen, but I’d be weary of playing Perkins too much when there’s an abundance of speed on the floor for Miami.
  • Which role players will step up? Will Ibaka have one of those games where he’s nearly perfect on his mid-range J? Will Battier or Mike Miller have a game where they get hot from behind the arc? Can Haslem still make a difference even though he looks like he’s not right physically? Can Fisher summon another hero moment and twist another dagger into an opponent? I’ve seen too many big games turn on a performance from a role player to not expect one or more of these things to happen over the next couple of weeks. The stars may headline, but at least one time a supporting cast member will steal the show.
  • Out of all the players in this series, Russell Westbrook may be the true difference maker. Every other star player has a counterpart at his position that is nearly just as key except for Westbrook. If he torches Chalmers or finds his groove shooting his mid-range jumper, the Heat will need to start to trap him and shade their defense his way. This will open up opportunities for other Thunder players on every possession. By the end of the Spurs series Westbrook was making the D pay by making smart passes when they overcommitted to him. If Miami is forced to do the same, they may be in trouble.
  • Ultimately, every time I try to pick a winner to this series I can’t really decide. Neither the Heat nor the Thunder have faced a team like the one they will tonight. OKC hasn’t seen a team with Miami’s defensive ability and athletes to match their own. And the Heat haven’t faced a team with as explosive an offense nor the depth and size of the Thunder. Both will be in for a bit of a shock tonight and will need to adjust accordingly. Predicting this series is as much about who navigates that change best and at this point, it’s toss up. If I had a gun to my head I’d choose Miami to win in 6 games but I’m about as confident in that pick as I am in winning the lottery.

However this series goes, we’ll be in for some great basketball. And while not having the Lakers still playing is disappointing, I can’t say this match up has me at all upset. These two teams have been on a collision course all season and to see it actually happen has me excited.